Revolutionizing content for a young audience

by Divya Murthy

April 9, 2018

Founder and executive editor of Condé Nast’s them talk to students about forging change in the media

A photo of Meredith Talusan and Philip Picardi
Meredith Talusan and Philip Picardi Photo courtesy of Myelle A. Lansat

Changing a magazine’s brand is a risk, but Teen Vogue took that leap, pivoting from beauty- and fashion-focused content to narratives of queerness, social justice and politics.

The risk paid off. 

“This isn’t a niche culture; this is the culture,” said Phillip Picardi, chief content officer at Teen Vogue and founder of them. Picardi and Meredith Talusan, executive editor of them, discussed social change with students at a recent Newhouse lecture.

Picardi had been looking to make queerness a platform, and he was able to do that with Teen Vogue and them, he said. Picardi became Teen Vogue’s digital editorial director in 2015. His team was tasked with pushing the site’s readership from 2 million a month to 10 million. They exceeded that goal—the site had 12 million monthly visitors by the height of the 2016 presidential election, he said.

Picardi aimed to find anything that was not considered traditional Teen Vogue content and discover a way to make it appealing to a young female audience. He compared the venture to the kind of content on MTV that parents would hesitate to let their children consume.

“What if Teen Vogue could be something more rebellious?” he said. In 13 years, Teen Vogue had never used the words clitoris, orgasm or abortion. Within three months of Picardi taking over, all of those words appeared in its stories.

Picardi said Teen Vogue’s “intentional shift to covering topics that matter” and increasing coverage of indigenous issues, race relations and responsible sex received both praise and criticism. A story about anal sex went viral and the magazine began receiving death threats, rape threats and calls for Picardi to be fired, he said.

Picardi responded with a Twitter thread about sex education through a personal lens: he narrated a story about a team of medical professionals who educated him about HIV in college and how that information wasn’t easily available to the queer community. That story got him an audience with Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour. The meeting became the birthplace of Condé Nast’s first queer-focused platform, them.

The new platform needed an executive editor, and Picardi’s search led him to Talusan.

Talusan said her story on Medium, “I Didn’t Know I Was a Boy,” opened up opportunities to write for publications like The Atlantic, BuzzFeed, VICE and Mic. This work caught Picardi’s attention, and he called her about joining them, she said. She took the opportunity to add her perspective to a queer publication and provide voice for other trans writers, she said.

“[them] was a small brand that proved its might,” Picardi said. “It wasn’t about making the right business decision; it was about doing the right thing. Instinct can’t be bought or quantified.”

Talusan and Picardi answered questions about focusing on underrepresented topics or people while covering sensitive issues like the March for Our Lives protest. They advised students to find interview subjects who  aren’t surrounded by reporters already, get their perspectives and pay attention to what everyone else isn’t seeing. Sensitivity requires the acknowledgement of a wide variety of experiences, which is especially useful in covering issues, like gun violence, that affect a range of communities. They also advised students to listen to their audience and to the cultural discourse around them.

“What’s actually important is that content is a two-way street,” Picardi said. “It has to be dialogue and not didacticism.”

Picardi finished with a piece of advice for students, encouraging them to take control of their future.

“Raise your hand, say yes to the grunt work, constantly try to prove your value above and beyond what serves you as a professional,” he said. “You will be able to make bigger dreams available to more people than ever before.”

Divya Murthy is a junior magazine major at the Newhouse School.